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Your 16 questions about how bowl games actually work, answered

College football has America’s weirdest postseason. Here’s how it currently works, explained somewhat briefly.

Potato Bowl, Wyoming vs. Central Michigan Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

1. First of all, what is a bowl game?

Short answer: A postseason exhibition that counts. College football is all oxymorons from top to bottom.

Long answer: College football started decades before the 1906 formation of the NCAA, the governing body that later instituted postseasons like March Madness in other sports. So the slapdash, longtime regional sport’s postseason had the silliest evolution imaginable.

2. Why are there so many bowl games?

Over time, there have been many answers. The shortest answer, these days: Disney makes money off them. ABC and ESPN broadcast almost all of them, including the whole New Year’s Six, and ESPN even owns about a third of them outright.

3. How many bowls are there these days?

There are 40, if you count the National Championship. That number is actually a little down. R.I.P. to the Poinsettia.

4. Why do bowl games have such wild names?

I mean, would you want your company to pay money to sponsor the Dahlonega Bowl between two 6-6 teams on a December weekday at 1 p.m. ET? Somebody has to.

5. When do bowl games get announced?

They flood out in random bursts throughout the December Sunday right after conference championship weekend. The whole bowl schedule’s usually spackled into place by that evening, hours before an authority like the Football Bowl Association announces the full list.

A few will also leak before Sunday, perhaps games involving independents Army or BYU, who sometimes have special deals of their own.

6. Who’s in charge of picking bowl game matchups?

Short answer: a combination of the bowls and the teams themselves, with conference oversight. The bowls want the most profitable teams they can grab, teams want the friendliest destinations (usually in terms of prestige, financial payout, and fan proximity) they can claim, and deals get wheeled during a frantic close.

A longer answer that you can skip if you want:

  • The College Football Playoff committee matches up the two semifinals. Those two and the other four really big games comprise the New Year’s Six (Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, Sugar), which are all based on committee rankings (though a few have conference ties, when they aren’t semis).
  • After the CFP takes its teams, the mayhem begins.
  • Some (the Big 12 and Pac-12) have strict pecking orders, which allow the bowls themselves to offer bids to teams. For example, the Big 12’s top non-New Year’s Six game is the Alamo Bowl. That game gets first pick from among the Big 12’s non-NY6 teams. The Camping World Bowl gets the next Big 12 pick, and so on.
  • Other bowl bids (some in the ACC, SEC, and the non-powers) are pooled into groups. In the SEC, the Citrus gets the first non-New Year’s Six pick, but the next six games are all in a group, with the conference weighing in heavily on who goes where.
  • And then there are all sorts of little stipulations, like independent Notre Dame being able to cut into the ACC’s order wherever its record fits, certain conference champs earning benefits (the Rose Bowl gets top Big Ten/Pac-12 teams when it’s not a semifinal, the Mountain West champ typically gets the Vegas, the C-USA champ gets its pick of the conference’s games, etc.), and some conferences like the Big Ten having rules against teams making too many trips to the same bowl.

7. Are bowl seeds based on records?

Not really. Bowls want to make money and will sometimes pick a more popular school or more excited fan base over a team that won more games.

In response to my weekly bowl projections, fans often ask: why are we projected below a team we beat? My answer is almost always: their fans would buy more tickets.

Some conference rules prevent winning teams from falling too far, like the ACC’s rule that ensures its conference championship loser doesn’t fall past its middle group of bowls.

Otherwise: free-for-all.

8. Is that fair?

It’s fair to bowls.

9. So the NCAA doesn’t determine bowl games?

The NCAA has never had much to do with the FBS postseason. It handles general eligibility paperwork, but the whole thing isn’t like the FCS playoffs or other college postseasons.

10. How do bowl game payouts work?

Bowls pay conferences, and conferences divvy that up among member schools. Each game hands out six- or seven-figure payments. Short rule of thumb in most years, with some obvious exceptions: the closer to the title game it is, the more money it likely pays out.

11. Do players get paid for bowl games?

College athletes making money for an extra month of labor? Be serious. They get Best Buy gift certificates and hats and so forth.

12. Is that why players sometimes skip bowl games?

A few players, typically ones with injuries and NFL futures, skip bowl games each year. The smaller bowls are usually big deals for small schools, and the big bowls are big deals for almost everybody. So when a big school winds up in a middling bowl, you’re a little likelier to see a player sit out.

13. Don’t schools all lose money on bowl games?

A misconception. A few do, but not as many as it’s made out to be.

Most view participating in the postseason as a branding necessity. Also, most coaches like having 15 extra practices (and getting paid school bonuses for making the postseason).

14. Which teams get to make bowl games? What if there aren’t enough?

Bowl eligibility is for teams that have .500-plus records, which almost always means at least six wins.

Teams that play 13 games and finish 6-7 can apply for waivers. If there aren’t enough teams, the NCAA awards eligibility to some 5-7 teams, based on Academic Progress Rate scores.

15. How many fans actually travel to these things?

Varies widely!

16. Do people complain every year about there being too many bowl games that reward mediocrity and hand out trophies for no good reason, then quietly enjoy watching football in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday?

Annually, yes.